What we can learn about mental health from Simone Biles
I applaud Simone Biles for taking a step back to look after her mental wellbeing (the same can be said for Naomi Osaka, and others who have taken a stand to say "Mentally and emotionally, I need to stop for a moment"). Quite rightly, much of the media has been reporting that had ANY athlete retired from a competition because of a physical injury, we would immediately find this acceptable and wish them well - while being saddened for them - why does that seem so different when it comes to protecting our mental health (with rest and recuperation)?
However, this article does not intend to focus on that, instead what I wanted to explore is how we can acknowledge Simone's courage (and that of others) in making visible an all too common struggle, and then looking after herself - in our own actions.
1. Mental strain is no different to physical strain in consequence
- Both can affect one another. If we are mentally or emotionally consumed by stress we are more likely to injure ourselves; a physical change can result in depression, anxiety or other mental and emotional issues. Therefore, in both cases we need to take time to recover.
HOWEVER, the issue with doing this for mental health is that it is largely a subjective diagnosis. We need to know our limits; we need to know when it's getting too much; we then need to speak out. With a physical strain, this is much easier to see objectively. (With mental ill health, an objective visual is the point of crisis - a breakdown...do we really need to let things get that far!?)
Every now and then, check in with yourself and ask:
- How am I really feeling?
- Are the people around me those that enhance my life?
- Is what I'm doing engaging and meaningful?
...and if the answers are negative, - what little things are in my control to change? (eg. if you are unhappy in your job, you may need to plan your exit, but if you are unhappy with your weight, you can add a little more movement into your day.)
2. Therefore...we need to be attuned to how we are feeling and our boundaries
- Mental strain, like physical strain doesn't usually "come out of nowhere". Yes, there are times when we are just unfortunate with a "jarred movement" or an accident - a bit like with mental ill health - a life event that we were unprepared for may knock us for six emotionally.
But, by and large, we know if we have been working our physical muscles too hard without rest, an injury is likely. This is also true of our mental health. If we continue to place ourselves under pressure - whether this is through the expectations of others (and ourselves), or taking on more than our share of a workload, or dealing with constant psychodramas (usually those of others'), we too will "snap". That is the physical consequence of the stress response...put the mind under too much pressure constantly and soon resistance gives way to exhaustion. We need to know when things are getting too much, and we need to know how to create some space for ourselves.
Building on the above, try this:
- If you are NOT feeling happy, and you have also now reflected on what changes you can make that are under your control, try the following energisers to get you acting on those ideas: recognise ANY moment where you feel good - and take another to savour it. These little wins work wonders to boost our energy - AND our feeling of self worth (because you are doing it for you). It doesn't need to be a big moment - a welcomed cup of tea that you actually drink, a moment to breathe the fresh air out of the window after falling rain...
- If you have too many toxic relationships in your life...
1. Work out what you want in a positive relationship by thinking about your current ones and asking:
- Which ones are reciprocal?
- Which ones bring me joy?
- Which ones encourage honesty?
- Which ones can I rely on?
and most importantly
- Which ones are with people I respect for their own values and actions? (Which ones does I actively want to choose?)
2. Less formally...Do a gratitude exercise for 7 days - every morning or night reflect on 3 people you are grateful to have in your life, and you will notice after 7 days that patterns emerge - some people appear more, others less frequently. Then ACTIVELY spend time with the ones that appear the most (this means you can tell the others, genuinely, you are "too busy", or feeling energised by the awesome people, will give you a little more strength for the exhausting ones). Plus, gratitude helps take advantage of the neuroplasticity of our brains helping us generate and receive more "happy chemicals" potentially priming our mind to focus on the positives more.
- If work is no longer meaningful...
1. Remind yourself what brought you to your job in the first place, and while your role may have changed, see if you can introduce some of the things you used to love. Perhaps it was the people - a nursing manager I trained said that she now asks her teams to roster her on an extra shift to two, to enable her to still interact with patients; perhaps it was the creativity - how can you bring that back in...maybe through something you do yourself such as what you wear, and how you work, even what you choose to learn beyond what is required; perhaps it is that you feel like the organisation is focused on money as "value" - perhaps bring in some team challenges such as "a step challenge", or a "zero waste challenge" - depending on that is really meaningful - one training day I delivered was "fully recyclable" - with a pot luck meal so there was full control over the washing up!!
2. If your intention is to leave that field, then make sure you do not jump out of the proverbial frying pan into the fire. Instead, really consider:
- What causes am I energised by/passionate about - or very much against!?
- What lifestyle do I want to be living (eg. you will need to be aware of financial needs, or locations for families)
These sorts of questions will help shape your direction, and from there you can look at the qualifications you may need in order to transfer your skills.
3. Do some daily "light exercise" for your mental and emotional wellbeing
In the same way as you might need to rehabilitate, or without physical injury build that strength in the first place, we can do the same for our mental strength. Maybe this includes some "me time" like a bubble bath (with the door locked), or reading a book, or time spent on a hobby.
The key pillars of happiness, at least according to positive psychology include:
- "flow" (enjoying life)
- Healthy relationships
Which really brings me back to the "check in" at point 1 - make sure you're not just on a treadmill created by someone else's expectations, and focus on bringing a sense of all three elements into your life. The tips and ideas outlined in this article do not need to be done at the point of crisis, but simply used regularly, just to make sure we're not putting too much pressure on the muscles we don't see.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author with a specialty in the "how to take action", rather than just giving explanation and advice. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience. For self development tools based within positive psychology: click Her YouTube Channel . Twitter/IG @draudreyt